Go to a Cider Festival Already
Here are a few annual opportunities to learn about an underappreciated beverage.
This week is New York City’s fourth annual CiderFeast — a festival featuring a small, but diverse collection of ciders from about 15 different brands with food options to match. CiderFeast certainly isn’t the world’s most recognized or comprehensive cider festival — we’ll get to those later — but when I attended the inaugural event four years ago, it was enough to change my life — converting me from a dismissive beer lover to a massive cider advocate almost overnight. And if you’re even the slightest bit cider curious, I would suggest that — somewhat counterintuitively — a cider festival may be your best place to start.
In general, Americans have tended to see cider as simply an alcoholic apple juice alternative to beer, meaning many people struggle to appreciate the beverage. America’s best-selling cider producer is Angry Orchard, and though they also dabble in excellent, vinous cider, their flagship Crisp Apple is literally described as “just like biting into a fresh apple.” Because of this preconception, even a great cider with considerable complexities, tried in isolation, can trigger the “it tastes like cider” reflex.
Cider festivals can resolve this issue — or at least it did for me. Ciders — just like beer and wine — come in a wide array of styles. Most people are familiar with sweeter ciders, but cider can also be bone dry. Most commercial ciders are fermented to drink crisp and clean but some of the best ciders are delightfully funky and offer barnyard notes like they’re straight from the farm. Ciders can be puckeringly acidic or intensely tannic. And a great way to understand all these differences is to go to a cider festival, go booth to booth, and drink a dozen or more different ciders in a row, focusing not so much on even what you like, but instead taking the time to digest the differences.
“The United States Association of Cider Makers believes festivals are a great way to educate the consumer on how diverse cider products can be depending on the fruit, region, production methods, and the interests of the maker,” explains Paul Vander Heide, president of the USACM and owner of Vander Mill Cider. “Cider can be dry, sweet, spiced, fruity, complex, tannic, hopped, and the list goes on.”
Of course, this all may seem like common knowledge, but often times, we don’t approach festivals this way. I’d guess a sizable percentage of beer drinkers have been to a beer festival: They’re pretty commonplace these days. But how often do you go to a beer festival to learn about beer? Usually, you’re just focused on finding something new and interesting — or maybe just getting inebriated. And that’s fine because most people already know about beer. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly half the time Americans grabbed an alcoholic beverage, it was a beer. Meanwhile, cider makes up less than one percent of America’s total alcoholic beverage market. Cider consumption is downright rare compared to beer consumption — which is exactly why cider festivals offer a different sort of opportunity: an exploratory mission.
Using this week’s CiderFeast as an example, despite the relatively small 15 producer selection, attendees can still get a widely diverse crash course on cider. A brand like Original Sin makes the kind of straightforward cider you’re probably used to seeing at a mainstream bar. And yet you can also try samples from Aaron Burr Cider, one of the first brands to popularize modern takes on traditional American cidermaking. The fest offers up an example of Spain’s acidic and funky Basque cider as well as a selection from Normandy, France’s signature cider region. With little more than a dozen brands, a lot of bases get covered.
Four years ago, I went to CiderFeast, my first cider festival, knowing little more than the fact that I liked alcohol. Now, I even have a Certified Cider Professional credential and regularly suggest interesting ciders to friends when they’re not ready for the hoppy wallop of a New England IPA. The moral isn’t that I am insane about cider. Quite the opposite: Cider actually isn’t that difficult to get into. The community loves inviting in newcomers with open arms.
Needless to say, we aren’t all in NYC tomorrow, so for those who looking to attend other cider festivals, I asked Vander Heide and Eric West, director of GLINTCAP and editor of CiderGuide.com, for recommendations on some of America’s best cider festivals. Here are their suggestions:
- Cider Days in Franklin County, Massachusetts (November 1 — 3, 2019) — Now in its 25th year, this event is said to be America’s longest running cider festival and features “a beyond impressive collection of ciders,” according to West.
- Great Lakes Cider and Perry Competition (GLINTCAP) in Grand Rapids, Michigan (likely May 2020) — One of America’s oldest and largest cider competitions. A bit like the Great American Beer Festival of cider.
- Cider Summit in Portland, Oregon (June 21 & 22, 2019); Seattle, Washington (September 6 & 7, 2019); Chicago, Illinois (TBD 2020); and San Francisco, California (April 2020) — This traveling cider event brings artisanal ciders from around the world to four major cities every year.